I met Daniel Stamm in 2008, when we premiered his faux-doc thriller, A Necessary Death, at SXSW. His latest directorial effort is The Last Exorcism, a horror film with a faux-documentary look-and-feel. In the new film, we follow disillusioned pastor Cotton Marcus who is fed up with the industry of evangelical churches, and invites a camera crew to document what he considers to be his last exorcism. However, this last house call features some mysterious circumstances, that force Cotton to question his lack of faith. Co-produced by Eli Roth, with a screenplay by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, The Last Exorcism is a deft spin on the exorcism sub-genre. It opens this weekend, nationwide, and I asked Daniel if he’d like to answer a few questions on this blog:
Me: There are obviously some stylistic simillarities between The Last Exorcism and your previous film, A Necessary Death. However, with A Necessary Death, there seemed to be more of an attempt to make it appear as legitimately nonfiction. At what point in the process of making The Last Exorcism, did you and the team decide that you wouldn’t try to pretend you were making a Blair Witch type of film and more of a traditional horror story just with documentary aesthetics?
Daniel Stamm: That decision was made very early on. We decided that we wouldn’t hide behind any kind of gimmick. The story had to be smart and original, the acting had to be captivating, and the hand-held cinematography would need to suck the audience in. The question of whether or not it is real would just have stood in the way, I think.
Me: Speaking of that, you cast some pretty experienced actors as your leads. What was the casting process?
Daniel Stamm: We saw hundreds of candidates for Cotton. I was looking for someone who had the right mixture of “professional” charisma and human warmth… charisma so we’d buy that he is capable of manipulating crowds and warmth so we’d forgive him for it. After weeks of auditions, Patrick Fabian walked in and brought both in spades. Ashley Bell was only the second actress to come in and audition for the role of Nell. I knew she was the one the second she came into the room and stopped auditioning for that part the moment she left.
Me: Did you research real-life exorcists before shooting began? What did you find?
Daniel Stamm: We did a lot of research. The writers did, I did, then the actors did. We even had a real-life exorcist on set to advise us. The most remarkable thing about him was how unremarkable exorcism was to him. To us it was this huge spectacle of epic proportions. To him it was work, and he talked about it with the matter-of-factness of someone working at Washington Mutual.
Me: The screenplay is credited to Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko, but it feels like so much of the dialogue must have been improvised. Is that true?
Daniel Stamm: We had an incredible script which was a big difference to A Necessary Death where we only had an outline. Still we used a lot of improv in rehearsals so the actors could explore the emotional core of the scenes. If they found something surprising that wasn’t in the script we would incorporate it. It was a very rewarding process which strengthened my belief that actors first and foremost are storytellers, that good actors are intelligent actors and that intelligent actors are gods.
Me: How did you get the gig, and what was it like working with Eli Roth as a producer?
Daniel Stamm: I was offered the movie when Strike Entertainment’s Eric Newman and Marc Abraham (Dawn of the Dead, Children of Men) saw A Necessary Death. I was really lucky to get to work with them and Eli because they are an extremely smart and supportive group of producers. Eli was an incredible resource because as a director he understands what you are going through, and obviously he knows horror – which wasn’t a genre I had worked in before. Through him I got to collaborate with Quentin Tarantino’s FX guru Greg Nicotero and composer Nathan Barr (True Blood, Hostel) which was a dream come true.